My Breakthrough Recipe: Chicken Divan

As a cooking teacher, I spend a good deal of time thinking about how – and when and where – we learn to cook. In my case, my breakthrough dish was Chicken Divan, a patently dated casserole comprised of canned soup, mayonnaise, broccoli and chicken. I don’t know why I latched onto this particular recipe, but during my early high school years it became my signature dish. I remember serving it at my first dinner party (I’m fairly certain my parents were out of town). I had no idea what how to host a dinner party, but I felt terribly grownup serving something so, ahem, elegant.

Now, keep in mind that this was the early 1970’s. There were no celebrity chefs, no Food Network, “gourmet” was not in my lexicon and canned soup was a staple in my mother’s cupboards. The only way I can explain my devotion to Chicken Divan is that it was the first time I felt as though I were truly cooking. Yes, I knew how to make toast, put together a decent sandwich, simmer a hot dog, fry an egg, and other simple ways to feed myself, but this casserole was big step above all of that. By assembling 6 or 7 ingredients in a certain progression, I made something complex that hit all my adolescent sensory receptors—rich, creamy, savory, beautifully browned and crunchy on top. More importantly, it turned out perfectly every time, people loved it, and I made it so many times that I owned that recipe.

I had all but forgotten about those early casseroles until one of my oldest, dearest friends sent me a scan of the hand-written recipe (below) that I had given her back in high school. I had copied it from a similar shorthand recipe of my mother’s (also below). I can’t help but smile looking at these thumbnail recipes now. Both bear the telltale cooking stains of a well-loved dish, and, like many old recipes, these abbreviated lists of ingredients assume a certain amount of basic kitchen know-how.  They assume you know that the chicken is pre-cooked, that the broccoli is steamed (or defrosted), that you layer these into a buttered baking dish and then stir together all the creamy elements and pour these overtop. In other words, they assume someone has already taught you how to make Chicken Divan; the recipes are a mere prompt.

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My “recipe” for Chicken Divan written out for my best friend (early 1970’s)

On one hand, these notes remind me that I’ve come a long way in my tastes and in how I write a recipe – my spelling has improved, too, although not my handwriting.  On the other, they remind me that cooking and sharing recipes is something that I’ve always loved to do. One of these days, perhaps I’ll update my old favorite by ditching the canned soup and mayonnaise. I wonder if it will be as good as I remember.

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My mother’s “recipe”, accredited to her sister-in-law and dear friend Kay, and glued onto a page in a looseleaf notebook.

 

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